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New Labour’s bare-knuckle fight against asylum seekers

Last week a report on the abuse of asylum seekers by private security guards was published, with shocking but perhaps unsurprising conclusions. Given that Outsourcing Abuse (pdf), co-authored by the law firm Birnberg Peirce, Medical Justice and the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, described how asylum seekers are beaten and abused in what Diane Abbott MP called “frightening state-sponsored violence”, it is shameful that the report did not spark more media coverage or outrage.

Incidents cited include racist abuse and beatings; one Nigerian man described how “he was beaten unconscious by guards after admitting he had talked to the media during a protest”. Children, disabled people and teenage girls all testified to the abuse they received while being detained. Despite this wealth of evidence, since October 2006, the UK Borders Agency has dismissed almost nine out of every 10 complaints.

Ministers had initially dismissed previous complaints last October as “unsubstantiated”.

The wrong, though all too likely, response from the Home Office and security firms to such a dossier is to repeat platitudes about codes of conduct and “bad apples”. In fact, the blame for such abuse lies squarely with a government which has created a monstrous system for dealing with some of society’s weakest and most vulnerable.

Some highlights of New Labour’s gloves-off approach: enforced destitution, the imprisonment of children, criminalising refused asylum seekers, the constant shifting around of asylum seekers between privatised jails, an obsession with quotas, automatically returning those fleeing torture who used false documents, and the eager cow-towing to the most xenophobic sections of the popular press.

This has developed in tandem with a general attack on civil liberties through new draconian anti-terror powers, and the stigmatising of British Muslims. The Islamophobia required by the “war on terror” has mixed with the targeting of asylum seekers to make a noxious brew.

In another devasting report the Independent Asylum Commission in the last few weeks condemned Britain’s asylum system as inhumane, including in its calls for an end to practices such as “locking up children [2000 a year], pregnant women and torture victims in detention centres” as well as the “‘unnecessarily violent and careless’ deportation raids on failed asylum seekers”. The commission also highlighted “the alleged use of destitution as a tool to drive claimants out of the country”.

To give one recent example, the Scottish Daily Record described how a Chinese woman, Ling Lin, who was eight months pregnant, has been left destitute by a system that has not only refused her right to stay in Britain, but has also denied her basic human dignities and provision.

Then there’s the unnamed Syrian man refused permission to stay despite “suffering horrific abuse” because of both his Kurdish political activism and homosexuality.

Often, these individual cases don’t make it beyond the local newspaper, but sometimes, the absurd cruelty of the government’s policies is manifest on such a large – and politically sensitive scale – that it makes national headlines. Such is the case with the 11,000 Zimbabweans facing either forced removal back to a murderous dictatorship or destitution. As Mugabe’s henchmen cracked down on opposition members, an MDC exile living in London received a letter from the Home Office declaring that “‘the support that you have been provided with is to be discontinued … You should note that there is no right to appeal against this decision … You must now leave the United Kingdom’.”

Interestingly, while New Labour’s embrace of such an unpleasantly rightwing approach to asylum seekers has been undoubtedly motivated by shameless vote-seeking, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that ordinary Brits are outraged by the policies of dawn raids, detentions, and deportations. Many are motivated enough to rally in support of an individual’s court case; others actively shield asylum seekers from the state.

Just in the last fortnight, a simple search reveals plenty of stories of the Home Office seeking the forced removal of asylum seekers who have established themselves as valuable and much-loved members of their adopted community. There’s the HIV-positive Cameroonian woman, who if forced back to Africa returns to a country where she has no family of her own or access to the necessary medication; or the Togolese asylum seeker Mathias Edoh Agbenokoudji, a well-loved 32-year-old film-maker, web designer and musician.

Last week, Hicham Yezza had his first immigration hearing after being first falsely detained without charge under anti-terror powers, then re-arrested for an alleged imimgration offence and almost subjected to a suspicious emergency deportation. But unlike Yezza and the others mentioned here, the vast majority of those caught in the asylum system are unable to draw on a support network; bewildered and traumatised, they are helpless to resist their fate.

Commenting on last week’s abuse report, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord David Ramsbotham called on the government to “recognise that our national reputation is not something to be treated lightly or wantonly”, labelling the dossier a “‘national disgrace”.

Just earlier this month, Britain was shamed in the European court of human rights for its insistence on returning ethnic Tamils to Sri Lanka where they face the risk of torture. Much damage has already been done to Britain’s reputation, from the UN to the level of popular perception around the world.

Radical change is needed to restore Britain’s reputation. After all, “We should be proud that these courageous people chose to seek sanctuary in our country”.

Published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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